The door was opened by a short footman, who looked Ian over insolently from head to toe, his chin thrust out pugnaciously. Ignoring the odd behavior of Elizabeth's servants, Ian glanced with interest at the timbered ceiling and then at the walls, where bright patches of wallpaper marked the places where paintings had once hung. There were no Persian carpets scattered on the polished floors, no treasures reposing on tabletops; in fact. there was precious little furniture anywhere in the hall or the salons off to his right. Ian's heart squeezed with a combination of guilt and admiration for how proudly she had pretended to him that she was still the carefree young heiress he'd thought her to be.
Realizing that the footman was still glowering at him, Ian looked down at the short man and said. "Your mistress is expecting me. Tell her I've arrived-"
"I'm here, Aaron," Elizabeth's voice said softly, and Ian turned. One look at her and Ian forgot the footman, the state of the house, and any knowledge of architecture he'd ever possessed. Garbed in a simple gown of sky-blue gauze, with her hair twisted into thick curls bound with narrow blue ribbons, Elizabeth was standing in the hall with the poise of a Grecian goddess and the smile of an angel. "What do you think?" she asked expectantly.
"About what?" he asked huskily, walking forward, forcing his hands not to reach for her.
"About Havenhurst?" she asked with quiet pride. Ian thought it was rather small and in desperate need of repair, not to mention furnishings. In fact, he had an impulse to drag her into his arms and beg her forgiveness for all he'd cost her. Knowing such a thing would shame and hurt her, he smiled and said truthfully, "What I've seen is very picturesque."
"Would you like to see the rest?" "Very much," he exaggerated, and it was worth it to see her face light up. "Where are the Townsendes?" he asked as they started up the staircase. "I didn't see a carriage in the drive."
"They haven't arrived yet." Ian correctly supposed that was Jordan's doing and made a mental note to thank his friend.
Elizabeth gave him a grand tour of the old house that was saved from being boring by her charming stories about some of its former owners; then she took him outside to the front lawn. Nodding to the far edge of the lawn, she said, "Over there was the castle wall and the moat, which was filled, of course, centuries ago. This whole section was a bailey then-a courtyard." she clarified, "that was enclosed by the castle walls. In those days there were outbuildings here in the bailey that housed everything from livestock to the buttery, so that the entire castle was completely self-sufficient. Over there," she said a few minutes later as they rounded the side of the house, "was where the third Earl of Havenhurst fell off his horse and then had the horse shot for throwing him. He was most ill-tempered," she added with a jaunty grin.
"Obviously," Ian grinned back at her, longing to kiss the smile on her lips. He glanced at the spot on the lawn she'd mentioned and said instead, "How did he happen to falloff his horse in his own bailey?"
"Oh, that," she said with a laugh. "He was practicing at the quintain at the time. In the Middle Ages," she explained to Ian, whose knowledge of medieval history was as complete as his knowledge of architecture, and who knew exactly what a quintain was, "the knights used to practice for jousts and battles with a quintain. A quintain is a crossbar with a sandbag hanging off one arm and a shield in front of the sandbag. The knights would charge it, but if a knight didn't strike the shield squarely with his broadsword, then the crossbar whirled around and the sandbag hit the knight in his back and knocked him off his horse."
"Which, I gather, is what happened to the third earl?" Ian teased as they headed toward the largest tree on the far edge of the lawn.
"Exactly," she averred. When they came to the tree she linked her hands behind her back, looking like an enchanting little girl with a secret she was about to share. "Now," she said, "look up there."
Ian tipped his head back and laughed with amazed pleasure. Above him was an enormous and very unusual tree house. "Yours?" he asked.
He cast a swift, appraising look at the sturdy "steps" nailed into the tree and then quirked a brow at her. "Do you want to go first, or shall I?"
"If you could invade mine, I can't see why I shouldn't see yours."
The carpenters who'd built it for her had done their jobs well, Ian noted as he bent over in the middle of it, looking around. Elizabeth had been much smaller than he, and everything was scaled to her size, but it was large enough that she could nearly stand upright in it as an adult. "What's over there, in the little trunk?"
She sidled behind him. smiling. "I was trying to remember just that when I was in yours. I'll look. Just as I thought," she said a moment later as she opened the .lid. "My doll and a tea service."
Ian grinned at it, and at her, but he saw the little girl she must have been, living alone in relative splendor, with a doll for her family and servants for friends. In comparison, his own youth had been much richer.
"There's just one more thing to show you," she said several minutes later when he'd extracted her from the tree limbs and they were heading toward the house.
Ian pulled himself from thoughts of her disadvantaged youth as she changed direction. They skirted the comer of the house, and when they came to the back of it Elizabeth stopped and raised her arm in a graceful, sweeping gesture. "Most of this is my contribution to Havenhurst," she told him proudly.
The sight that Ian beheld when he looked up made his grin fade as tenderness and awe shook through him. Spread out before him in colorful splendor were the most magnificent flower gardens Ian had ever beheld. The other heirs of Havenhurst might have added stone and mortar to the house, but Elizabeth had given it breathtaking beauty.
"When I was young," she confided softly, looking out at the sloping gardens and the hills beyond, "I used to think this was the most beautiful place on earth." Feeling a little foolish over her confidences, Elizabeth glanced up at him with an embarrassed smile. "What is the most beautiful place you've ever seen?"
Dragging his gaze from the beauty of the gardens, Ian looked down at the beauty beside him. "Any place," he said huskily, "where you are."
He saw the becoming flush of embarrassed pleasure that pinkened her cheeks, but when she spoke her voice was rueful. "You don't have to say such things to me, you know-I'll keep our bargain."